Remembering Tonawanda

by kgradow1 with jjcreedon | 01 Jul 04:17

For ten years, community members fought to hold Tonawanda Coke accountable for poisoning the air in Tonawanda NY. Using buckets, summa canisters, and tenacious organizing, they collaborated with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) and found that the amount of benzene emitted by Tonawanda Coke was nine times higher than what was being reported to the EPA.

Jackie James Creedon is a founder of the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York (CAC) and Citizen Science Community Resources (CSCR) and a contributor to Public Lab, as well as an advisor on the bucket monitor project. She agreed to share her story, which has been lightly edited with permission.

Toxic in Tonawanda: Unexplained Cancers

What happened in Tonawanda?

Really, what was intended was to clean up our own backyards. I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. I didn’t know what caused it. In January of 2002 there was a front page Buffalo News article called “Toxic in Tonawanda?” They interviewed a bunch of people, residents and workers in the area who were all sick. It was people’s stories. Not only were they sick, but there were stories of how their animals had strange diseases and ended up dying. I saw the article and that was really the impetus for me to start researching and finding out what was going on.

I said, “Something doesn’t seem right.” So I reached out to some of those people and just started asking a lot of questions.

Buffalo News article, “Toxic in Tonawanda?” Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources

There was another factory that rolled uranium for the atomic bomb in Tonawanda, and some of those workers worked for this other factory and they were very ill. There was this feeling that that was what was making everybody sick. The residents and the workers had voiced their opinions pretty loud, so the New York State Department of Health came to investigate. They conducted a cancer surveillance study from 1994-1998. They came to Tonawanda to announce their results in 2002. Sure enough, it showed certain cancers and overall cancers were significantly higher than the state averages. They said that none of the cancers that were elevated were associated with uranium exposure, so they just sort of packed up their bags and went home.

I specifically remember that day, that evening, saying, “If it’s not that, then what is it? I want to find out.”

Toxic Bus Tour and Global Community Monitor

When I started, there was a small local organization called Citizens Environmental Coalition. They had a small Buffalo office with one employee. I reached out and asked them, “Is there a proper citizen’s environmental group in Tonawanda?” And he said “No.” And I said, “OK, I’m going to start one.” The original four of us were Adele, Tim, her husband, and me, and this gentleman who worked for this environmental organization called Mike Schade, who had worked for Lois Gibbs for awhile. So we started a community organization.

In 2003 I was speaking at a rally for Lois Gibbs -- as you know, Love Canal is not far from here either, it was the 25th anniversary and I was asked to speak about the issues in Tonawanda. It was a Toxic Tour, everyone gets on a bus. We were in Tonawanda, I was speaking, that’s when Adele approached me. She said, “You know, I think it’s something in our air that is making us sick.” and I said, “I think maybe you’re right.”

Soon after that I was having coffee with Mike Schade from this environmental organization and he said, “I know of this gentleman in northern CA, his name is Denny Larson, he has this organization called Global Community Monitor. There’s a method to take an air sample called the bucket method.”

What did you originally hope to accomplish?

We wanted to reduce air pollution in our community. None of us were activists, we were concerned citizens, so we had a lot of learning to do. We found out that Tonawanda was home to 54 air regulated facilities. That’s a lot. We also read some brochures about how to get organized and Denny sent us a book about how to run a good neighbor campaign. And that’s what we decided, that we wanted to run a good neighbor campaign based on the results of the bucket.

So from there, Denny had a small grant, he came to Tonawanda, we met in somebody’s basement. Probably 8-10 of us. And we built a couple of buckets. He showed us how to use them. At that point we really only had one bucket. So then we had a bucket, we knew how to use it. And that’s when we learned that we needed to do a brigade.

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Denny Larson with the “Bucket”, 2003. Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources

A brigade is hunting for a smell. Because these industries pollute mainly in the middle of the night. We had to set an alarm and go out in the middle of the night. So we did that a couple of times. The infamous time that we collected an air sample with our bucket was either the first or the second time. We didn’t do it a lot. The buckets are cheap to make, but it’s expensive for the analysis. You really want to make sure to capture a “bad” smell, because it’s only a three minute sample, and those odors can move really quickly. Apparently we did a good job in capturing it!

At this point we had no idea that most of our polluted air was coming from Tonawanda Coke. We just knew our air stunk. It was August 2004 that we held a bucket brigade at night, we captured an air sample to have it analyzed. We got the results back and still didn’t know what all the numbers meant. We met in Tim’s living room and planned how we were going to announce the results. And that’s when we changed our name from Toxic in Tonawanda to Clean Air Coalition of Western New York.

Building the “Bucket” with Denny Larson, 2003 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources

The Tonawanda Bucket Brigade, 2004 Image courtesy of Citizen Science Community Resources

Carbon Disulfide and the 3M Campaign

Besides benzene, we also found another chemical called carbon disulfide that we were concerned about. We figured out this was coming from 3M which has a sponge company in Tonawanda.

3M Factory, as seen in Google Maps

See, Tonawanda was a complicated situation because there were 54 air regulated facilities in a very concentrated area. Tonawanda has the highest concentration of regulated facilities in all of New York State. It was hard to figure out who was doing what. It took a lot of research. So we figured it out, it was carbon disulfide and benzene. Carbon disulfide was easy to figure out, 3M was really the only source. So we met with 3M, trying to do the good neighbor campaign. We met with the owners and we were pretty satisfied. We were working with an engineer at the NYS DEC that we felt we could trust and he went there with us. 3M actually flew someone in from their headquarters to give us a presentation on everything that they’re doing to reduce emissions in Tonawanda. They treated us very respectfully. They met with us, said, “This is what we’re doing,” and guess what? They did it!

So we were like, “OK! This seems pretty easy. Let’s move on to the next one.” Beginner’s luck. Well, then the fun began! So the benzene. We took the sample not far from the expressway, but we didn’t know where it was coming from. We had our monthly meetings at the local fire hall on Saturday mornings, and one Saturday morning this engineer from NYS DEC attended our meeting. He was the one who said, “You might really want to take a look at Tonawanda Coke. The owner is sort of a bad actor.” He was the one that started dropping ideas to us at those Saturday morning meetings that maybe something was up.

Tonawanda Coke, 2018. Image courtesy of Paul Leuchner of Citizen Science Community Resources

Using Summa Canisters to Verify Bucket Results

We were working very closely with DEC at this point. This engineer named Al Carlacci was very respectful to us. He listened to us. We were respectful too. We didn’t demand anything. It was really about relationship building and getting to that point of trusting each other, which is huge. Figuring out who you can trust, who you can’t, who’s going to help you, who’s not going to help you. Anyway, this guy Al was really a good guy, he meant it. So he took our data and said, “Yeah, you know, it’s high, but it’s only one three minute sample.”

It all came down to one day in March of 2014, this one person, Judge Skretny, deciding the fate of Tonawanda Coke and the environmental manager. Was the community going to get anything? This case was historical in a lot of ways. It was only the second time in history that a company was convicted under the Clean Air Act in a federal lawsuit, and it was the first time that a judge ordered community projects as a term of probation at sentencing. At the sentencing, TCC was ordered to pay $12.5 million in fines and$12.2 million in community studies. So he funded the community, and our $700,000 soil study! This was the beginning of Citizen Science Community Resources. That was huge! We were not even a non-profit. He also funded an$11 million University of Buffalo health study. The environmental manager was sentenced to a year in jail. He was fined $20,000. It was obviously a big win for our community. And on the civil side, Tonawanda Coke agreed to install pollution control equipment. Their benzene was reduced by 86 percent in our community. We got our reduction in benzene. TCC didn't fight the civil actions, they settled that case. There was also$1.3 million set aside for community projects. In total, the community got over $13 million for environment and health projects.. In the same year, J.D. Crane, the owner of TCC, had passed away. He was 92 years old. His grandson, Paul Saffrin, took over the business. Mr. Saffrin vowed that he was going to turn everything around and be a good neighbor. We thought as a community, “OK, we got our benzene reductions, we got our community projects, let’s give this guy a chance.” But over the next several years, nothing really had changed. This facility was a 100 year old facility. Just the nature of such an old dilapidated factory, there were things that were polluting our community, and people were still dying. OSHA wound up going in. There was this incident where the safety control on a conveyor belt wasn’t put into place and a gentleman’s zipper on his jacket got caught. Poor guy got pulled in and died! Things like this kept happening. Another time, there was an explosion. People got hurt. We would hear stories about something happening consistently. TCC employees were leaking information to community members, and then other community members were calling me. The DEC would get an inclination that something happened, and they would follow up. Tonawanda Coke would give them a bullshit story. Some employees with Tonawanda Coke were talking with people from the community and calling me with the real story, and then I was going back to the DEC. Again and again and again, there were these upsets. They’d lie about it. They’d get caught again. It was continuous. July 2018: StoptheStacks and the closure of Tonawanda Coke The final upset happened in January 2018. There was an underground tunnel that collapsed. We started seeing black billowing smoke coming out of the facility again. TCC was giving us bullshit again, “It will be fixed, it will be fixed.” Everyone started taking photographs and putting them on social media. At this point, TCC was still under probation with the DOJ and the DEC was on their butt too. Everyone was so sick of this company. The amount of energy that went into trying to keep these guys following environmental rules and regulations was enormous. It was ridiculous. There was a huge fire in July of 2018. The fire trucks came to Tonawanda Coke. We started getting all these complaints and people taking photographs from the expressway. A few TCC employees drove a forklift to the entrance of Tonawanda Coke and wouldn’t let the fire company in. They told them, “Go away, we’ve got it handled.” TCC was such a bad actor. That’s when we ran the campaign, StoptheStacks. At this point, the community, elected officials and the agencies had had enough. We gave them another shot, but they blew it. We decided, “We want them gone.” Our local official, Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Joe Emminger and the town board all went on record saying, “This company needs to go.” That was huge, because they had had enough too. “The amount of taxes we are getting from this company are nothing compared to the people who are being put into harm’s way, the workers who were put into harm’s way, the pollution, the stress. “ So that was it. A multipronged approach with everyone rounding the wagons against Tonawanda Coke. In October of 2018 Tonawanda Coke announced that they were closing their doors and shuttering the plant. That’s the end! We have clean air now in Tonawanda. Our cancer risk due to benzene, at one point, was 75 times New York State guidelines. Now it’s down to New York State averages. We also have a significant reduction in particulate matter and many other toxins. All those other companies, when they heard and saw what the community had done, they really got their act together and installed more air pollution equipment. It was a domino effect. We were to be taken seriously. Image courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation It wasn’t like that at the beginning. At the beginning we didn’t even go to our elected officials because very few wanted to be on our side.. But it was the data, and working with NYS DEC and EPA. When we had that solid data from the NYS DEC “Tonawanda Community Air Quality Study”, that’s when everything turned around. Remembering Tonawanda In March 2014, Tonawanda Coke was fined$12.5 million and ordered to pay $12.2 million in community service projects by the U.S. Department of Justice after the company was indicted and convicted of breaking federal criminal and environmental laws the previous year. It was only the second time in history that a federal criminal case had been successfully tried under the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). In subsequent civil proceedings, the company settled a suit with the State of New York and the EPA by signing a consent decree and paid$2.75 million in civil penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act (CAA), the Clean Water Act (CWA), and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act (EPCRA). Additionally, the company spent approximately $7.9 million to reduce air pollution and enhance air and water quality, and$1.3 million for environmental projects in the area of Tonawanda, New York.

What was your journey like? How did you build knowledge over the course of this campaign?

My background is science. Science always intrigued me. I like to ask a lot of questions, put it all together, and try and figure things out. I think that the biggest knowledge that I personally gained was this: I thought once we had this data, that that would bring us a victory. I was wrong. It was a significant pivotal moment in the story; however, it wasn’t enough. I’ve heard from other communities who use citizen or community science, that they struggle with same thing. The science is not enough. It’s about taking that science, and learning how to use it to advocate for your community. A big part of winning is about relationship building.

Do you think this project would have been different if DEC had not done the follow up study?

I think Tonawanda Coke would still be operating today. I had a resident call me the other day and say thank you. It had dawned on him, because of this COVID-19 situation, how it impacts people’s lungs. That’s how their coke oven gas was impacting our community. It’s benzene, but it’s also black soot, particulate matter. He said, “Oh my gosh, if TCC’s air emissions hadn't been eliminated, we would be much more sick with COVID.” We really saved lives. However, there were a lot of lives that were lost. It tore my heart out so many times. People who had cancer that we lost. They knew in their heart what had caused their cancer and wanted to do something about it for the short period of time they had left.

Why did you decide to change the name?

In 2003, when we started we called ourselves Toxic in Tonawanda. But after we collected the first set of data, we thought that name was a little too radical. We wanted to seem credible. That’s when we changed our name. The original group was the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York, now we’re Citizen Science Community Resources.

What do you remember most vividly about doing this work?

It’s taken a long time for me to digest everything. That all of this happened.. It’s important for me to tell the story because I remember how important it is to pass along the lessons learned. Much of our society operates by putting profits and power ahead of the environment and people's health. I didn't know this before. It was a sad reality for me. TCC polluted our community because they thought they were above the law. All at the expense of our health and our environment. We need to change our systems where we give more significance to saving people's lives and health and safety of our communities.

What would you recommend to others who are just starting a campaign like this?

I remember Denny talking about this. Usually fighting lean and mean is a good idea. It’s really important to be careful about who you bring into the fold, into the core group, and to be able to rely on those people. There were many times when I took the lead, or Tim took the lead, or Adele took the lead. We sort of cycled. But the four of us -- mainly the three of us -- we were all on the same wavelength. The environment and health of our community always came first.

These small meetings with the state agencies were so important. Don’t bring the issue up in the media right away, then you lose all sorts of trust. Media should be used right at the end as a last ditch effort. We went to the agencies first and built a working relationship with the people we could trust. There’s certain parts of the story that I feel are really important -- this, for instance, was really critical in why we were successful.

And it’s about community science. That’s what it was! Community science.

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